Thievery Corporation is one of those household names that opened our minds to new realms of musical experimentation. Since starting out in the 90's, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have crafted their own paradigm of electronic music, drawing influences from trip hop, acid Jazz, Afro-Beat, Jamaican Dub, Middle Eastern and more. Their music is timeless and transcends the boundaries of genre. Their latest album The Temple of I & I pays homage to Jamaican rhythms, incorporating dub, hip hop and futuristic sounds into the record.
We chat to Rob Garza about his upcoming Australian tour, his take on utilising his platform for social and political consciousness, and the importance of timelessness in music. Ayla Dhyani writes.
You’re set to tour Australia in March this year. Are you looking forward to coming out here?
We always look forward to going out there. We have a great time. The audiences are great. I think we were there about February two years ago and it’s a really nice time to be over there. It’s always a blast.
Your latest album, The Temple of I & I, is sensational. Tell us a bit about the concept behind the title of the record.
Well “I & I” is a Rastafarian term for “us.” It sort of represents our musical temple. We’ve always been influenced by Reggae music since we started back on our first album, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi. With this record, we really wanted to put the focus on that sound. We went down to Jamaica to a place called Port Antonio and recorded there. We stayed at a studio and hotel called Geejam, which was pretty cool. It was right there on the beach. They had this beautiful wall of glass, and you could look out at the sea while you’re recording.
What a beautiful setting to record. I realise you’ve touched on this, but what was the thought process in regards to going in that direction and harnessing that Jamaican influence for this album?
We really wanted to dedicate almost a whole record with that type of sound. There are a few other types of genres on the record as well. The tracks with Mr. Lif, are more hip hop and the one with LouLou Ghelichkhani is a bit more futuristic sounding, but in general we wanted to have that Jamaican vibe throughout the record.
Tell us a bit about your artistic approach in regards to selecting feature artists.
We tend to start out by making sketches. We’ll just come up with some ideas and develop them. Then we’ll start thinking about who might sound great on a particular track. We’ve been working with a roster of artists for the past 5 or 6 years, and we’ll just think “hey, LouLou might sound great on that track.” On this record we have a new artist named Racquel Jones who has been performing with us for the first time. She’s been a great addition for the album. You can hear her on the track “Letter To The Editor” and “Road Block.” Then we also have people like Puma Ptah, who has recorded with us. He’s from St. Thomas, which isn’t too far from Jamaica. Then we also have Notch, who is half Jamaican and half Cuban. He has a phenomenal voice.
Is there a track that really speaks to you more than any other on the album?
It’s kind of like trying to choose your favourite child (laughs). I think for both of us, it changes all the time. I really love “Time + Space.” It would probably be my favourite at the moment. Then there’s “Fight To Survive” as well and “Letter To The Editor.” There’s a bunch.
That’s a fair point. I feel that the culture that we have with music these days, can sometimes pull away from how the album is supposed to be heard in its entirety from a production standpoint. What are your thoughts?
Exactly. I remember back in the day, you would take time and it felt like two seconds of silence was too long between songs (laughs), but people don’t really think about it anymore.
Reflecting on this album, it’s evident that you still maintain that flow throughout its entirety.
Thank you. We always wanted to make records that would take you on a journey. Kind of like old-school vinyl. You would put it on and let it take you somewhere.
Both Eric Hilton and yourself are noted as being somewhat pioneers for both electronic and trip-hop styles. What’s your take on the progression of your sound since the ‘90s?
Well, I think it’s always been about taking bits of the past and combining it with the future. Trying to make something that sounds like you’re not sure when it was created. Maybe it was created a long time ago, or maybe it’s more current. For us that makes us think of music in a timeless sense. A lot of our favourite songs are music that was recorded in the past. We’re very influenced by music that was recorded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Have external trends in genre influenced your sound over the years?
Personally, I’m very interested in electronic music. I try to keep elements of what’s modern within the music and, for me, that keeps it relevant. It’s interesting when I DJ, I sometimes play old records and they just don’t hold up sonically to things that are happening today. It’s nice to bring those other factors to it, whether it’s a kick-drum or some synthesisers, keyboards, drum machines and things like that. It’s cool to bring that in with these older sounds.
What has been the biggest challenge for yourself as an artist throughout your career?
I think in general it’s difficult today for young artists to come up because there’s so much music coming out all the time. Back in the day, there was just music magazines that would talk about the releases that were coming out for the month. There would just be a finite number, but now there’s so much that it’s hard to not get lost in it all. Everything is so very temporary. I think it’s harder for artists when it comes to recorded music. A lot of artists make their money through touring and recorded music isn’t as lucrative, so I think trying to build a sustainable career is more difficult for artists these days. I say that as someone who ran a record label and when we would put out artists back before streaming and downloads, we knew that we would be able to develop strong careers. There was one period where things got really rough, especially with illegal downloads. But now, I feel that because so many people are streaming music, it does make it better for people who are focussed on the recorded music side of things.
Well, it’s amazing that you managed to do it when you did and witness the progression of the music industry.
I feel very fortunate. We’ve been able to have a career that’s lasted over 22 years.
Exactly, and within that, you’ve also generated a platform. You’re in a place where you can express yourself and people are listening. What messages do you try to convey more than anything within your music?
I think we try to open people’s ears to new and different sounds, and hopefully that opens people’s minds as well. For instance, working with Middle Eastern singers or musicians. In the world of ISIS these days, people in the United States have a very bad concept of that culture. So, it’s nice to bring something that is more human and shows how much we have in common, rather than solely experiencing the media onslaught talking about how one culture is just all negative. Especially in Trump’s America. We’re also trying to be politically conscious and socially conscious. To talk about the planet we live on and what’s going on.
When you’re out here in Australia, you’re planning on having a full band. How do you find the energy of the performances with the band in comparison to your DJ sets?
It’s a lot more energetic and vibrant to come out with the band. There’s always that process that happens in terms of performing and giving energy to the audience and also getting that energy back. It makes it really fulfilling to be on stage and perform from our catalogue. When you do DJ sets, a lot of the time you might be playing other people’s music and at the end of the day, you’re really just standing behind a table (laughs). It’s a very different experience.
Are there any challenges that come with it?
In our case, I think the biggest challenge is travelling around with 20 people or so, including all the tech guys and lighting guys. Trying to coordinate all of that and the logistics behind it is more challenging that just two guys going up to DJ. But it’s also a lot of fun travelling with that many people and there’s people from all different parts of the world, different ages, and lots of different experiences. Just hanging out backstage can sometimes be just as fun as the times when you are on stage.
What moves you?
The main thing is just music. I feel that music is just that connection. For me, it’s also one of the closest things we have to time travel. You can go back to 1977 in Amsterdam or you can go to 1965 in Rio de Janeiro just by listening to music. It takes you back to a time and place. For me, music is a vehicle and it’s moved me to a lot of places in my life.